Contract With A Conscience

Sustainability is the word I hear most often these days when people talk about trends in landscaping and landscape maintenance. Sustainability can be defined as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

The art of selling sustainability. Photo Courtesy Of LandPatterns, Inc.

Is this a new concept? Hardly.

This proactive concept has been taught to children from ecology books that warned, “If we don’t do ‘A’, then ‘B’ will occur, and ‘B’ is a bad thing.”

Because we ignored our lessons, ‘B’ is here, and we are forced to be reactive, using sustainable practices to try to repair what we have destroyed because, if we don’t take care of ‘B,’ then ‘C’ will happen. And ‘C’ is a very, very bad thing.

Let’s be completely honest and admit that the biggest stumbling blocks for the average homeowner (whom we will call M. Smith) to embrace sustainability are:

• Money

• Ease of use

• Money.

Yes, I know I cited money twice, because it’s really important to M. Smith. There is a cost tied to creating a sustainable landscape, and in some cases it is a significant cost.

There is also the perceived cost of maintaining the new landscape organically, which initially is more expensive than maintaining a traditional residential landscape.

Ease of use? Of course, it is easier to spray that evil weed with a nationally advertised Brand X weed killer than spraying it three different times with a vinegar solution. So what if Brand X contains several of the most toxic substances in the environment?

So how do I convince M. Smith to create a sustainable residential landscape? I obviously have to appeal to his sense of decency, but for this to become the status quo, I must show him that he can save money along with saving the environment.

Organic Maintenance

There are thousands of articles and websites explaining the “how’s” of organic maintenance, so let’s talk about how to sell the “why.”

Early in my career, a client called, complaining that her grass had died and needed to be replaced. Yes, her lawn was quite dead, along with most of the shrubs and trees.

But why? Her irrigation system was set correctly and functioned properly, and there was no evidence of insects or diseases.

As I stood with the homeowner discussing the problem, a national chemical lawn-treatment company pulled up and began spraying the dead and dying landscape with … something so toxic that the spray tech wore a hazmat suit and a breather.

Soil tests showed that the lawn chemicals being applied had sterilized the soil. Even if the company stopped spraying immediately, it would still take decades for the chemicals to reach a dilution point where life (microbes, insects, and earthworms) could be sustained again.

Of course, this is an extreme example of greed and incompetence, but these same chemicals are being applied to lawns today, with the same results. In the end, the chemical company was “convinced” to replace the top 4 feet of soil on her property and all of the plant material.

It was not difficult to set that client on the path to organic care.

Synthetic Pesticides And Fertilizers

The health problems caused by agrochemicals are surprisingly well-documented, but that information has been thoroughly suppressed by the chemical manufacturers. The list of chemicals is long, and the effects are frightening.

If your client uses synthetic fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides, their soil is quite dead, and the green grass is merely an illusion that the environment is healthy.

The fiscal cost that goes along with the physical cost is that $5.25 billion per year is spent on synthetic fertilizers, and $700 million is spent on pesticides each year in the United States. It’s much more cost-effective—both in terms of saving the environment and saving money—to switch to an organic program.

How does an organic fertilization program save money? Many experts agree that aeration is one of the most important components for a healthy lawn. Microbes and earthworms thriving in a chemical-free environment continuously migrate up and down in the soil, aerating it naturally and helping to create healthy soil that breathes.

This also means that the organic fertilizers, which use natural, slow-release ingredients, are pulled down into the earth where the roots can slowly absorb what they need. So even though the organic fertilizers are somewhat more expensive, they can be used much less often, and in many cases fertilizers may be eliminated.

As an additional bonus, a more porous soil absorbs more water, reducing run-off and allowing for less irrigation.

In terms of dollars and cents, these are key selling points that allow your client to think of switching to organic solutions.

Mulching is the other key ingredient to creating a healthy, organic soil. The microbes break down the mulch and enrich the soil, which allays the need for fertilizer. The mulch also prevents weed seeds from reaching the soil so they cannot germinate, which lessens the need for weed killers.

Lastly, mulch reduces the amount of water evaporation from the soil, allowing it to stay moist, thus reducing the amount of water used for irrigation.

Again, the key is informing a client how the organics work and how much money and effort can be saved.

The Trimmed Hedge

Imagine the dew glistening from perfectly trimmed hedges, separating the carpet-like lawn from the bright, happy flower beds. What a lovely sight to see: a stately home with a well-maintained garden.

What a huge, wasteful expense. Let’s look at some statistics:

• Eight-hundred-million gallons of gasoline are used annually for lawn maintenance.

• According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new gas-powered lawn mower produces as much volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides emissions in 1 hour of operation as 11 new cars, each being driven for 1 hour.

• The EPA estimates that 17-million gallons of fuel are spilled each year in filling up lawn equipment. That is more fuel than was spilled by the wreck of the Exxon Valdez.

• Fifteen to 30 percent of the waste deposited in landfills comes from yard clippings.

These are stunning numbers, but M. Smith will only admit to creating a tiny percentage of the problem; more than likely, he will shrug it off as a necessary evil.

To keep those nicely trimmed hedges and pristine lawn, the average homeowner pays around $350 per month to cut the lawn, trim the hedges, and pull weeds. What would the homeowner pay if there was no turf (or at least less turf) to cut, no hedges to trim, and less weeding?

Next to nothing.

Furthermore, the same look of lower-growing evergreen hedges can be achieved using dwarf cultivars, which eliminates the need for trimming and hedging.

Here in Dallas, people love their azaleas. But what is the biggest problem with growing azaleas here? Do we have acidic soil? Nope. Do we have well-drained soils? Nope. Do we have abundant moisture? Nope.

Our soils and climate make it almost impossible to grow azaleas without creating completely artificial environments. The cost of doing this can be high and completely unnecessary, as the same look of bright, vibrant blooms can be achieved using more environmentally conscious plants.

There are several plants that are native to this very hot and dry city on the prairie. Replacing water- and nutrient-hungry imports with native or hardy naturalized plants saves the homeowner money from purchasing chemical treatments and with the reduced watering needs.


One of the easiest and most effective ways to promote sustainability is by changing the way clients water. Many clients overwater or water at the wrong times, so irrigation technology has advanced to combat these mistakes.

Three technologies are commonly used to reduce water usage, even paying for themselves within a few years:

Weather station controllers —Sensors measure air temperature, solar radiation, relative humidity, wind run, wind direction, and rainfall, and combine them with site conditions entered by the installer, ZIP code (for historical data), slope, shaded areas, turf vs. beds, etc., to efficiently manage water usage.

Pressure-reducing heads —Up to 40 percent of water sprayed from traditional heads is lost into the atmosphere in areas with high water pressure (8-percent water loss for every 5 pounds of pressure over 30 pounds per square inch).

Drip irrigation lines —Reduces water usage by up to 60 percent by delivering water directly to the roots.

It might seem like a lot of money to convert conventional systems at the outset, but by providing the data above, you might have an easier time selling clients on correcting many common mistakes.

You may be hesitant to suggest the cost savings options to clients, thinking it would be insane to take money out of your own pocket. After all, you will have to reduce the contract amount if there is less to do.

How many new clients do you think you could enroll by selling your company as “the guys who can save you money”? How many construction contracts can you sign for performing the work? How much karma can you pick up by helping save the environment?

The answer is the same for all three questions.

Timothy Reed, MLA, APLD, is a landscape designer for LandPatterns, Inc. in Dallas, Texas. Reach him at

1. Environmental Health News, Crystal Gammon, June 22, 2009